I just received the sad news that Lou Hodges, the elder statesman of this Journalism & Mass Communications department, has died at the age of 83. Farmer, preacher, professor, profane and funny Christian ethicist, the grumpy and joyous man who stuck his head in my office to bark “Impersonating a scholar again, I see,” he will be missed. A student of mine wrote this illuminating story about Lou for a class I taught a few years ago.
By Mark Gensburg, ‘16
Civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., in the midst of one of his toughest protest campaigns, almost came to give a speech at the very place where Robert E. Lee is buried, Washington & Lee University.
In 1961, associate professor of theology Dr. Lou Hodges took two vans full of students over the Blue Ridge to Lynchburg to watch a speech of Martin Luther King Jr. Not long after that, these students asked King to lead a seminar on Christian ideals at Washington and Lee.
Yet the University Christian Association (UCA), which was in charge of the seminar and of which Hodges was the faculty advisor, decided on a 7-2 decision to first seek the formal approval of the board of trustees to invite King.
Much to the dismay of Hodges and the UCA, the board of trustees denied the group permission to invite him. With no justification for its decision, the board quickly came under fire from both the faculty and students alike. And Dr. Hodges led the charge.
Quoted in the Oct. 20, 1961, issue of the Ring-tum Phi, Hodges said, “The board gave us an answer, but no excuse.”
Soon a firestorm of contempt aimed at the board of trustees swept across campus. The decision was decried in five different issues of the Ring-tum Phi and in a survey presented on Oct. 27, 1961, no student on campus could be found who supported the board’s apparently arbitrary decision.
The controversy spread and was headline news in newspapers as far away as Nova Scotia. Closer to home, it was publicized in the Roanoke Times and Virginia Inquirer.
The school and its reputation, it seemed, was being dragged through the mud. Critics from inside and out called the decision to prevent Dr. King from speaking as a decision to restrict the students’ “freedom of inquiry.” Many charged that the board was politicizing the students’ education and the Ring-tum Phi cried that the decision violated the students’ “liberty of mind.”
It was at this point that Hodges was summoned to speak privately with Fred Cole, president of the University.
“Well this will be the dismissal of me,” Hodges recalled in an interview in December 2012. “I had only been on for one year. I thought that I would be fired.”
Hodges was not fired. In fact, he went on to get tenure and teach at W&L for another four decades. He pioneered W&L’s ethics-in-the-professions series, which spawned the journalism ethics chair that he held until retiring in 2002. He came to be known nationally as one of the pioneers of journalism ethics education.
President Cole was not even upset with the controversy the King invitation had caused, said Hodges.
“Invitations of speakers should never need to go to the board of Trustees,” Hodges recalled President Cole saying.
“A new rule was created which dealt with the board [of trustees] and got it fixed that the board would never again do what they did to me.”
Eventually the controversy faded and life on campus returned to normal. Yet, Professor Hodges remained in contact with Dr. King. He said he even received a letter from King from the Birmingham jail in 1963 – not the famous one King wrote from that jail cell, to moderate white ministers in Birmingham, criticizing them for seeking patience from protesters.
While the decision to prevent King from speaking was never reversed, the conflict resulted in the a slew of expanded freedoms for the department of religious studies.
Although the trustees never released a reason for their decision, Hodges suspects that it was based in racial prejudices.
“The group seemed to think ‘Negro’ speakers were inferior to white people,” he said.
That is only his hypothesis. But this is a fact he could utter with a smile on his face: “Now faculty can invite whoever they want.”